Please Join Me Under One Flag

This July 4th, let’s declare our unity by reclaiming our independence.

I am one of those stubborn political independents who believe that solving problems is more important than winning ideological fistfights, and I deplore politicians whose interest is limited to being a cult leader’s toady. I believe in empowering people to achieve their objectives, rather than oppressing others and bending them to the will of my particular beliefs. I have learned to see Americans as neither Republican nor Democrat, nor any of the other meaningless and often dangerous ways we try to classify people to break them down and treat them differently. Mine is a learned (and often dismissed) disposition in a political system that otherwise demands group affiliation. On the surface, it seems easier to classify people to wage a desired political agenda and affect public policy but, today, it often just inflames conflict and compromises success—especially at the national level. Perhaps it’s just my advancing maturity, but I find little affirming value in belonging to groups, and I wish folks would wave just one flag: the American flag, without changing its colors. Until and when we rally around one flag—with one set of colors: red, white and blue—we will continue on our current course: flirting with authoritarianism in the face of a democracy in chaos. Meanwhile, our adversaries throughout the world lick their chops. Our disunity is their opportunity.

The prevailing mindset in America today is Us vs. Them. Try and find a group today that is not beset by this condition. The other prevailing characteristic many groups share is that they believe they are the exception—that they conscientiously subscribe to inclusive consensus-building practices. But spend more than five minutes in their group discussions and the Us vs. Them mentality quickly percolates to the surface. It is astonishing how fast it rises and equally astonishing how blind participants are to its existence. And don’t dare call them out; you will be banished in a heartbeat. They are like alcoholics who believe that everyone but them are drunks; claimed with cocktail in-hand. As a scholar, I have studied the effects of Us vs. Them righteousness and certitude that historically emanated from organized religions—especially monotheistic religions. I have traced and illustrated religion’s effects on American foreign policy. However, in the last ten years or so, politics has supplanted religion as the locus of righteousness and certitude. There is no need to trace religion to politics; today, politics is religion.

My parents taught me that to exclude people in politics—or any other persuasive endeavor—is foolish if you want to win. Political parties call this the “Big Tent Strategy”; something they give lip service to when attempting to feign inclusion. Candidates today love to judge, shame, and condemn others in a feeble attempt to bolster their standing—especially with donors. They rarely address the needs of their constituents. To me, we are all just humans trying to find a secure, predictable, and fulfilling path to live our lives. Many would call me an outlier, and I am often looked upon with curious contempt from hardcore blinders-on partisans. But the truth is we independents—while only informally and generally involuntarily associated—now make up the fastest growing political segment in America as more folks abandon the quagmire of left/right traditional thinking in favor of political pragmatism. My home state of Colorado calls me “unaffiliated” on the voter rolls as if I am a wayward orphan. However, we outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in the state. We make the purple, purple.

That is not to say we independents are by any means cohesive in our ideological convictions. Our diversity does not lend itself to forming a group, which is both our strength and our weakness. Among independents, you will find a wide range of positions on many issues. Some are independent because Republicans are not conservative enough, while others are because Democrats are not liberal enough. The vast majority, however, sit in the middle-way of America where reason and wisdom and, moreover, calm resides. We are the new jokers in the deck of the traditional two-party system. What we share is the realization that our political system in the United States has completely collapsed rendering our government unable to serve our interests—to support basic public goods that have been the elements of a social contract between the government and the governed since the founding of our country, first put forth by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. What we also share is a simple and clear proposition that defines what Americans want: stability and the right to self-determination. We want our political leaders to focus on safety, security, fairness, and predictability, and do so in a manner consistent with their oath of office. That’s it.

Sounds simple enough, but there is a natural tension between stability and self-determination that must be understood to balance these aims. Stability requires norms, laws, and structures to assure order. Self-determination tests those institutions as personal liberties must be expressed in a manner that does not violate them or otherwise risk their collapse. Partisan zealots who dominate both parties today have adopted similar strategies: pursue liberties and related political objectives regardless of the institutional guardrails that assure stability in a civil society. Every hot-button issue today—from abortion to guns—are hot for one reason: advocates or adversaries who want to impose their beliefs on others at the expense of stability—of civil society. Historically, shared American values have provided the touchstones to dull the sharp edges of political discourse and support the prospect of compromise. Trump threw those norms away and Democrats have followed his lead. When only you are right and everyone else is wrong, entropy is inevitable.

Traditionally, Republicans have advocated for rules and structure and compliance in hierarchical and often patriarchal regimes of command and control where discipline is more valued than creativity. Democrats have taken a much more laissez faire approach to social and political order where personal liberties and creativity are favored over boundaries, and government exists to nurture, support, and protect such individualism. Today, in many ways those profiles have flipped. Trumplicans don’t want to follow any rules (as modeled by their namesake) and woke-Democrats are imposing new rules (often through shame-based tactics) in a frankly awkward attempt to be the bigger bully. The result? Bullying has become the modality of the dominant-extremes in both parties. And we wonder why people are fleeing politics or, as I have done, rejected both political parties by declaring independence. The question now is which party will get control of their bullies (and attract independent voters like me) in time to win in November? The party that figures that out first could be in power for the foreseeable future.

The irony of the chaos that characterizes all aspects of American life today is that what Americans want from their politicians has never been simpler or clearer. Recent research shows that Republicans want conservative ideas (some of which Trump advocates) without Trump style. They want competence in execution—an ability to actually govern—rather than lies, corruption, and hysterical fear-mongering. Conservative ideas with Eisenhower’s executive capabilities and disposition. As for Democrats, they want the humanity and openness that is safeguarded by democratic institutions and assured by liberal society, which is to say fair, open, and inclusive. They want the fortitude and convictions of Teddy Roosevelt —especially toward the middle class and the environment—with the calm demeanor of Barack Obama. Today, all of us want to see strength and determination in setting America on a new path to sustainable prosperity. We know we are in trouble—no need to scare us further about that. We also know some things must be broken, which include everything from outdated and outmoded congressional rules like the senate filibuster, to our tax code, to narrowing the scope of government in order to right the ship of America. We want to see courage from our leaders and a self-effacing commitment to empowering Americans to pursue their particular American dreams. Is that too much to ask?

Pundits argue that the Republican Party is in disarray with Trump continuing his modality of divisiveness in every political race in America. To my eye, that just means they are as confused as Democrats have always been in seeking any sense of cohesiveness. Traditionally, Republicans are like the duck on the water that appears completely calm and at-ease while paddling like hell beneath the surface where all the organizational work is done to maintain power, like redistricting, voter registration (and suppression), and the appointment of judges and justices. On the other hand, the traditional Democratic duck squawks and flaps its wings creating all manner of surface disturbance—often espousing grievances and claims of victimhood—while it can’t seem to paddle in any particular direction whatsoever. I want a calm and determined duck that glides across the water leaving a smooth wake in its path. Those are the ducks this independent voter will support.

Both parties need to realize that the strength and determination we prefer is found in neither intimidation nor whining. Attempting to bend people to your will (the Republican modality) or extolling grievances and victimhood (the Democratic modality) have this in common: they both convey weakness. Neither bullies nor victims are icons of strength. Some folks will support intimidation in the short run, but when they realize it only benefits party leaders, they become disenchanted. Meanwhile, those attracted to victim narratives similarly are left wondering why they were, in the end, never liberated from their oppression (real or imagined). Strength is necessary to persuade people you can deliver stability and restore self-determination, but it is a strength based in American values that respects its democratic institutions. In short, strength deployed with integrity.

This is where the current Democrat-controlled congress has failed. Americans have easily seen past the provocative slogans and have found plenty of bickering, but little legislative substance. Running around with your hair on fire just leaves one bald and, eventually, out of office. This reality coupled with historical midterm voting patterns stacked against the Democrats will undoubtedly spell disaster for them this November. All, right when the Republican Party is as vulnerable as it has been since Nixon fled the White House on Marine One in August 1974.

Republicans understand how to organize, execute, and win elections. They understand that to get what you want you must have power. However, at the hands of Trump, McConnell, and McCarthy, they have fallen into the abyss of selfishness, dishonesty, and cruelty that is beyond disgusting, it is abhorrent. Just last Friday, the Trump/McConnell-loaded Supreme Court did what it has never done before: it rescinded an established individual right when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Is it any surprise the target was women? They won’t protect children from assault rifles, why would they protect women’s rights? The only shocking thing is that we are shocked. The Republican Party needs a massive purge of their crazies (especially its libertine misogynists), yet it’s mostly nutjobs that are winning primaries because that is what the few who participate at this stage in the process want: the nuttier the better. When a Cheney is the voice of moderation in your party, you might want to pause for a moment of reflection.

What’s surprising today is that neither party has figured any of this out. They have been captured by their extremes who care more about their personal beliefs and grievances than serving Americans. Do we really need to suffer complete societal collapse before we get back to restoring civil society? Leadership really isn’t that complicated when your head and heart are in the right place. That’s what this American wants, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Happy Independence Day. Now, go exercise your independence under one flag that is red, white, and blue. It may seem paradoxical that declaring our independence is the pathway to unity, but it is the only avenue I see. Until we realize there can be no Them, only Us, we have no chance of meeting the challenges of the day. Americans have achieved the impossible to save the republic before and we must do so now, again. To my Democrat friends who cringe at waving our flag, get over it. Allowing Republicans to claim the flag as exclusively their own is a strategic political error your party made that has persisted for decades and must end, now. It is your flag too. You are patriots too.

One America, one flag.

By |2022-06-26T14:13:48+00:00June 26th, 2022|Current, General, Leadership|0 Comments

Chasing Life

Some years ago, when I did occasional consulting for businesses, I was tasked with assisting a wealth management company in composing a new long-term strategic plan. The fundamental question of any enterprise is, why are we here? Why do we matter? Why should anyone care? Why, why, why. As you might expect, wealth management firms live in a hyper-quantitative world. If it can’t be measured in dollars, or numbers related to dollars, it didn’t matter. So, you can imagine the consternation I caused when I suggested they were not in the wealth management business; rather, that they were in the well-being business.

Their spreadsheets had no row or column for the qualitative aspects of well-being—of human fulfilment. And, to be fair, their clients didn’t know how to relate to them as wealth managers without talking about money and return on investment. Both sides of the conversation were in a box that, while relevant, was not determinative in crafting a fulfilling life. They were in the business of means, not ends, which also meant they were like everyone else in their business: undifferentiated money managers. I argued that if they raised the level of conversation to one oriented around well-being, they would set themselves apart and attract and retain much more business for the firm. They agreed. They did, and they are fabulously successful today. Trust me when I say the idea was the easy part; they (not I) did the hard work to bring it to realization.

Even today, when we assess the value of a product, service, policy, investment, relationship, or any undertaking in general, our default mode of analysis avoids the squishy components of well-being, welfare, or thriving. These terms do not lend themselves to scorekeeping, which in our Western culture is paramount to measuring success. And yet, these terms capture the essence of our pursuits in life—they emanate from meaning. They are why we are here. I know plenty of folks for whom money and shiny objects, or the next adventure, or new spouse, might make them feel successful, whole, and worthy. They are stuck on a treadmill on which there is no finish line—no magical moment forthcoming when they feel they have arrived in a state of fulfillment, or grace, or peace. They are the proverbial hamster on the paddle-wheel of wants and desires. It is tragic, and yet, it is the manner in which most Americans live their lives.

I have always been a fan of Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of human needs, first published in 1943 as an article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Two things most people don’t know about his work. First, he did not put his hierarchy in a pyramidal diagram; consultants who use his hierarchy did that. Second, and more importantly, when he passed away in 1970, he was on the brink of a new addition to the hierarchy: the level of transcendence. As you may recall, the hierarchy he proposed in 1943 began with having physiological needs met, then safety, belonging/love, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization where one spent their days pursuing inner talent, creativity, and fulfillment. Thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist, who dug through Maslow’s work papers dating to the time of his death, we now know Maslow was about to update his hierarchy to reveal the next, last, level of human needs.

In effect, in Maslow’s contemplation of transcendence (which theoretically lies beyond self-actualization) he is suggesting a state of mind and presence we might traditionally associate with the after-life in heaven. In his rendering: heaven on earth. (Sign me up for that program!) He described the transcendent state as one of complete absorption disassociated with time and space where the ego is left behind and there are no fears, anxieties, or inhibitions enjoying heightened aestheticism, wonder, awe and surrender while feeling no separation between the self and the world; something akin to what some Eastern spiritual traditions call non-duality. Collectively, he chose the term “peak experience” to describe these events of transcendence which, he believed, “offer the opportunity to see more of the whole truth, unimpeded by the many cognitive distortions evolved to protect us from psychic pain.”[i] He identifies what I would call an event of deliverance from ourselves and the complications and limits imposed by daily life to affect a state of boundless awareness and clarity and love—what gurus throughout history have called a state of enlightenment.

For my own purposes, I breakdown the phases of life into quarters: Preparation, Achievement, Actualization, and Transcendence. While we all continue to require the needs identified by Maslow to be fulfilled to one extent or another in every phase, the modality of our attention and efforts should follow this pattern. That said, many get stuck along the way. Sometimes by themselves, or at the hand of others, or events beyond their control. There are no guarantees on the pathway of life. Indeed, any assurances offered of a smooth ride from one quarter to the next should be met with high skepticism. My own train has been derailed more than once by events largely beyond my control. Generally, by someone whose own life-path was disturbed, or disrupted, or never began with a solid foundation in the preparation phase. For example, if you never gain a sense of durable self-worth in the preparation phase, you will likely stumble—mostly sideways—for the rest of your life. In my personal experience, persons so afflicted often become family wrecking balls. They inflict their own suffering on those they profess to love.

When derailed, all any of us can do is scramble back to our path and hope the wounds will heal such that we can continue to pursue our well-being on our own terms. Maslow believed humans have the capacity to thrive and achieve transcendence before death. He considered waiting until after death to be a conceit and deceit of organized religion. I wake every day to meet the day with the aim of fulfillment, even if it is only to master the otherwise mundane aspects of life. I call it mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. Many of the realities we face today in America and the world are extremely disturbing. We may not be able to affect these realities, but we can manage our relationship with them. Let it be. Let it go. Relax to release and rise. Our traditional metrics of success including all the quantitative measurements of wealth, while necessary to manage the means of satisfying needs, only get us so far. Our higher calling is our well-being. Our highest aim is sweet peace.

[i] Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: the New Science of Self-Actualization (New York: Tarcherperigree, 2020), p. 196.

By |2022-06-26T13:32:21+00:00June 19th, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

Summer of ???

Summer evenings when the heat breaks, breezes flow, and the sounds of softball in the park drift throughout the avenues beneath the freshly-greened boughs of maples and elms and cottonwoods are America at its best.  In the long days of summer, the sun sets with a sense of stubbornness unlike winter when it sinks even before the family dog has been fed her supper. I live where seasons matter, or at least I think so, although admittedly it may just be because where I live nature still dominates—you can’t ignore its seasons. Maybe in the city seasons are marked less by nature than by changing advertising campaigns and storefront merchandise, or which pro athletes dominate billboards. Those who live in the sunbelt, where I suppose your electric bill knows best what time of year it is, live in a sameness I would find maddening, but to each his/her own. As happy as I am to see a new season come, I am equally happy after a few months to see it go in favor of the next one. Maybe that is when sunbelt folks adjust their shades?

Will this be the summer we have been waiting for since the onset of Covid in early 2020? The Hot Vax Summer where vaxed and waxed and ready to party is the cry of pandemic liberation? The onset of summer for me was accompanied by a big not-so-fast “Gotcha!” Omicron BA.2 cut my liberation short. My first airline trip in almost a year gave me a dose of the Covid crud, accompanied by flight cancellations that are apparently the new norm. I crawled home with enough N95s to boost 3M’s second quarter earnings. I have never known so many people infected with Covid as I do today, but it should be no surprise as everywhere is packed and few bother with masks. My doc put me on Paxlovid, which works well if you can stand having your mouth taste like acid-washed pennies for five days. Thirty pills roughly the size of Hummingbird eggs come in packs of three as big as an appetizer at a high-dollar hipster eatery, which I suppose is a good thing since I was hungry for little else. Those few extra winter pounds went bye-bye fast. Ten days out I am clear, waiting for the other shoe to drop—the Paxlovid relapse bounce—that may be yet to come. But hell, it’s summer!

“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was Harvard professor and LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s call to action that ushered in the Summer of Love in 1967. Open to everything was the basic modus operandi. Sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll was the popular to-do list. The Mamas and the Papas told us to “be sure to wear flowers in your hair” as the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco became the place to be and be seen. It was an era of similar furor by and between political parties and democratic institutions in America. Violence was usually in the form of bombs—fire bombs, mail bombs, and car bombs—until the next summer, 1968, when assassination-by-gun started trending. Without four-hundred million guns in 1967 America, what else was a psychopath to do? Blow it up! Love was, then as now, limited to sharing with those with whom one agreed politically. Openness always has its limits. At least they weren’t mowing down third graders with assault rifles. Back then, pro-life actually applied to the already-born too, unless you were a member of the Viet Cong. Ah, those simple times! Peace, baby! We survived. Sort of.

Unfortunately, the summer of ’22 may be known for its sadness more than its love. Deadly violence in America and feckless political leadership in red states and at the national level means many more will die. The Supremes are poised to act to save little clumps of cells; at least zygotes can become blastocysts regardless of a woman’s choice in red states. These budding humans will be safe at least until they are born. Blue states are fast becoming havens for heathens. (I am trying to grow my horns now.) Meanwhile, both the Supremes and the senate will assure every angry young man retains their right and access to the guns of war in the event they are offended by a grade school. Cruz, McConnell, McCarthy and friends will continue to ring their cash registers with the blood-money of the gun lobby. The prevailing condition in America today is not openness or free love, it is very dangerous cowardice. We absolutely know what the right things to do are, but we are—collectively—moral cowards. That scene in Uvalde, Texas with hundreds of cops armed with lots of guns and cowboy hats standing around while innocent children had their bodies ripped apart says it all. To quote a common contemptuous Texas saying: “Big hat, no cattle.”

If only Professor Leary and those damn dirty hippies had not offended Tricky Dick Nixon, we would be decades ahead of where we are in employing psychedelics to better treat mental illness and give us all a more pleasant glidepath to end-of-life serenity. Addiction, PTSD, and many other mental disturbances marked by neurotic ruminations would clearly be better managed by psychedelics than with guns and alcohol with a splash of meth. The gun-loving Republicans who claim mental health as the primary issue causing gun violence in America should jump on the psychedelic bandwagon. Or, at least take a hit now and then. (Can you imagine McConnell on Ecstasy?) It feels like if we could migrate the American psyche back towards an even-keel center and away from the lunatic fringe we might be able to save ourselves. All anger does is fill politician’s pockets and keep funeral homes busy.

But, here we are: shame, suffering, and sadness are what we have and, arguably, what we deserve. The Age of Deceit—of lying to ourselves and compromising fundamental American values—has come home to roost. No outside enemy did this to us, we did this to ourselves. Yes, Xi is dangerous and Putin is evil, but our wounds are self-inflicted. While they would love to take credit for our current circumstances and consequences, we have only ourselves to blame. We did a poor job of picking our leaders. Most of us didn’t even participate in our democracy. We pointed at each other to play blame-and-shame.  When everyone is a victim in their own mind, who is left to take responsibility? I am not a Pollyanna about fixing this mess. I know it will take hard work and harder truths. But, if we don’t start calling ourselves out now, the first better day in America will continue—always—to be tomorrow.

Now, it’s summer. Go put flowers in your hair, and maybe gnaw on a ’shroom or two. I hear the game in the park might go into extra innings.

By |2022-06-19T13:04:03+00:00June 7th, 2022|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Finding Home

The concept of home is perhaps the most comforting of any we summon when we feel the need for safety and comfort and the nurturing presence of others we regard as family. In past American generations, home was a given: it was where you grew up then grew old. It was immutable. It was a place one could neither choose for or against; it just was. Seasons changed and generations passed, but home was home.

My grandparent’s generation were the last Americans to experience home as a static concept. The Greatest Generation who followed were the first to move beyond to introduce the idea that home was a place to be decided upon rather than inherited. World War II, and the rise of the United States as a superpower, both allowed and, at times, required the displacement of family members to form new homes and traditions at locations that were often great distances from the family homestead, as those sanctuaries of heritage were known. From the 1960s onward, the sanctity of permanence assured by family homesteads was diluted and dispersed and, no matter how hard we tried to reestablish new homesteads, it proved impossible to recreate the multi-sensory characteristics of what we had lost as we pursued the ambitions and tribulations of modern life.

As a boy, I never felt more at home than on my maternal grandparents windowed-in front porch in rural South Dakota where I would often nap after busy mornings tailing my grandfather. Tall elms shaded the yard while mourning doves cooed. Gophers scampered to and fro as the chase was always on. My grandfather gently rocked in his Stickley-styled chair while the livestock market prattled on his small AM band radio providing a hint of structure from a distant world. As I lay on the porch swing anchored to the slat-wood ceiling by chains above, the creak of the swing synched up with the rhythm of his chair as the warm alfalfa-scented breeze gently caressed my grandmother’s white lace curtains. We were both home; an unspoken generation-skipping bond I still cherish today and summon in my heart when I need the comfort of refuge.

Regrets? Yes, I have a few. I suspect I am not alone when I say I have struggled to establish that sense of home that seemed effortless to my grandparents. I regret embracing transience over permanence. My generation couldn’t be bothered with deep roots. The faster we moved the more successful and fulfilled we thought our lives would be. We failed (or at least I failed) to provide an enduring sense of home for my children. We built bigger and better houses, but seldom established homes. Today, the vast majority of Americans have residences, but no home. Of course, “homeless” is not how we describe them, yet that is what they are.  Homeless is a term invented during my lifetime to describe those without shelter. People have suffered throughout history from lacking shelter and, as during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, were forced to leave their homestead, but the concept of home endured—it traveled. And, once the forces of displacement resolved, many returned to that same place to reclaim it as home. Today, most Americans have no idea where home is; in many cases because it never existed.

The lack of home in this traditional sense is seen by many as the inherent cost of progress. But, have we progressed? American society is falling apart. There is no dimension of its structure I can point to and claim, “Look there: stability!” Many point to the decline of religious faith as the source of instability. Others are threatened by people who don’t look like them and aim their blame there. Still others see technology—at once enabling and empowering—as the source of societal ills. The truth is (as always) partly here, partly there, and somewhere in between. I will suggest the disorientation and chaos we are experiencing today is due to the fact we are all like individual boats—captained alone—whose compasses can’t find home. We are subject to prevailing winds that push us about but not one vessel on the vast water of America has an anchor. No way to arrest our drift or pause to set a new course. No capacity to sit still. No way to find the safety and comfort and the nurturing presence of others we regard as family. No home.

I have a back-pocket thesis about cultures I have witnessed—like most villages in Italy—where generational homes still exist. Where home still happens. When I have been fortunate to observe these places, I am filled with that warm sense of permanence their citizens enjoy while also feeling that pang of lament for what I, and we as Americans, have lost. I fantasize about moving there and spending the rest of my life basking in the presence of home. I feel the same way in Ireland, which many generations ago was a place some of my ancestors called home. My thesis is that these are cultures that are well ahead of America. That’s right: not behind, ahead. They are cultures once cursed by the same pattern of success and downfall America is now experiencing. They too lost their sense of home through empire collapse, war, and famine. Then, they came home. And, stayed there. Yes, they go out into the world to achieve an expanded sense of awareness, but then they come home. Maybe there is a lesson in there for us.

On my own now, I feel an obligation to stay home—to stay put unless traveling to expand my own awareness or support my family that is dispersed from coast to coast. It’s my nod to the wisdom of the Italians and Irish. I chose the Colorado Rockies, or perhaps they chose me. It is my sanctuary from the madness of crowds; the disenchanted, angry, and too-often violent people who are destroying America. A cop-out? Maybe, but so be it. I have also learned, through deep contemplation, that establishing home at this stage of my life requires that I remain in the seat of Self in the traditions that regard consciousness as the essence of being. My pillow to sit on wherever I may (physically) be. In this conceptualization, home is where I am, wherever that may be at any particular time. Mystical? Damn right. It is imperfect—not my grandparent’s porch—but it works for me.

I will leave you today with my poem, “The Fading Light.”

 

My wake, once deep and frothy, recedes now—ripples to glass.

Wisdom swells in its place, washing the stains of life away.

Hands hardened by toil and conflict give way to a softer heart,

beating to the delicate rhythm of tranquility.

Alone with thoughts both grand and small,

mediated by memories of triumph and loss.

Cast as a voyeur now to the victories and defeats of others.

Eyes fixed on the tumbledown of humanity.

Will they find their way, or consume themselves?

Time knows but remains, for the moment, silent.

My mark fades now into the twilight of obscurity.

Just enough light to find my way out as the curtain falls.

 

Have a wonderful week ahead. Until my pen draws ink, again.

By |2022-06-07T14:19:17+00:00May 22nd, 2022|General|0 Comments

Dissonance, Disequilibria & Power

“What the hell is going on with (fill in the blank)?” is a question I have heard (and myself asked) often in the last few years. There may be a shortage of computer chips, childcare, housing, rental cars, and building materials, but there is no shortage of things that just don’t make sense. When our expectations are met by realities that are wildly discordant, anxiety flourishes and leaders scramble. It is very hard to fix something that can’t be explained. Dissonance becomes a source of cultural malaise. Disequilibria, which economists argue is nearly always a short-term phenomenon, causes wild swings in pricing as markets attempt to settle on an intersection of supply and demand. Collectively, these disturbances to normalcy create gaps and pathways to be exploited by mercenary actors who create all kinds of mischief as they extract wealth and power from instability. The vast majority of us stand by and become innocent victims; too often, collateral damage.

The malaise reported by most Americans today, which contradicts relatively positive economic data on employment, wages, and asset values, is evidence of anxiety that emanates from what we cannot yet tabulate, but know in our hearts: the world we thought we knew is over. Today’s world is one where power politics trumps economics, demographics, science, social norms, the rule of law, and even morality. Where reason is torqued beyond recognition in favor of coercion to subjugate—to bring to heel—adversaries who, in many cases, were previously treated as worthy citizens of a united realm of freedom and protected by established norms and laws.

In the last few years, the Trump worldview has metastasized where power is both a means and an end, and it has spread to both ends of the political spectrum: right and left. Trump’s attempted January 6th coup, followed by Putin’s World War II-ish styled invasion of Ukraine, and Alito’s triumphantly patriarchal draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade are of the same modality: coercive power deployed to destroy norms, laws, lives, and liberties. We might expect such bald-faced hostility from Trump and Putin, but a Supreme Court justice? Alito’s opinion is more like a political rant than considered judicial position. It’s as if he is a candidate trying to fire up a political base. In it you will find anger, arrogance, and even belligerence clearly unbecoming of a justice on the Supreme Court. Power politics ignores all of the guardrails of civil society and it has now permeated every institutional corner of our political system—including the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court—that traditionally existed to keep nefarious actors at bay.

Getting past this pervasive retrogression to power politics that is underway in America and the world, and which aims to set the clock of humanity back more than half-a-century, will require, among other things, an unflinching determination to assert the will of truth. Marching with clever slogans on signs will not prevail over those drinking shots of power like bro-boys at a bachelor party. Their power-inebriated state will only fuel their belligerence toward those they wish to subjugate. As each of Trump, Putin, and Alito have recently done, they will claim victimhood to provide themselves with a veil (however sheer) of protective moral authority. Yes, claiming “witch hunt,” “Nazi aggression,” and “cancel culture” is a slight-of-hand designed simply to grab a slice of moral legitimacy. Those who live in carefully constructed and maintained information bubbles crafted by these types of actors will stupidly, but fervently, go along. The rest of us need to wake up, organize, and elect those who will recover our institutions of normalcy from the grasp of bad actors.

I know, I hear you, I am tired of this shit too. I am tired of being lied to. I am tired of watching people get away with it. I am tired of watching the progress of generations squandered. I am tired of watching people who are in a position to affect such a recovery of our institutions preening under the lights of cable TV—more concerned with their exposure to potential donors than saving America. I am tired of feeling ashamed every time I think of how I might explain how my generation let this happen in make-believe conversations with my dead ancestors and real time conversations with my kids. My psyche and my conscience spend too much of the day and night beating each other up. On too many days, humanity just wears me out.

For the foreseeable future, calm may have to replace joy as the definition of happiness as it was during my grandparent’s day. Eyes often reveal the disposition of generations. My maternal grandmother, Lunetta Belle Stinehart Goodfellow, had soft brown eyes that seldom were raised high enough to be level with the horizon. Downcast, yet determined; perched above lips that were perpetually pursed, my grandmother’s eyes expressed what was important to her: getting through the challenges of the day with a stern sense of resolve wrapped in the puritanical disposition of a committed Methodist who knew (or at least hoped) the afterlife might bring joy after enduring Word War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Her self-image was never about herself—it was communal. It was never “this is me,” it was only ever “this is us,” where “us” was family and community.

My father, John Reynolds Steding, a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation” whose eyes were also brown, seldom cast his below the horizon. His disposition was less about getting through than going beyond, which may be why he was an aeronautical engineer and was instrumental in the U.S. space program. Still, his self-image remained embedded in the concept of “us” but was larger. “Us” was indeed family and community, but it was also very much about country. The invention of nuclear weapons raised everyone’s eyes above the horizon. “Incoming” was not a train arriving at the station, it was a nuclear warhead inbound from the Soviet Union. Life was allowed to expand beyond the limits of his parents’ generation, propelled by America’s emergence as a superpower, but it was bounded by the prospect of human annihilation.

My eyes are blue (go figure). My generation—the Boomers—were the first generation to dismiss “this is us” in exchange for “look at what I did.” Not we, I. Boomers blame Millennials for this shift from the collective to the individual, but no, it was us. We were hyper-individualists who waged our battles as entrepreneurs and solo practitioners while often disregarding the wisdom of safety nets. We were loosed upon the world as free-agents who found both guidelines and guardrails as nuisances to be largely ignored. Forget the horizon, our eyes danced up and down, side to side, like a junkie juiced on amphetamines. No one wanted to have an opportunity elude their field of vision. Given our rather manic dispositions we, ironically but necessarily, became wizards of risk management. As pendulums swing, it did when we became parents. Us Boomers—who considered independence as a condition that should be sprinkled with steroids—then turned about and raised the most dependent generations (Millennials and Zs) of all time.

My daughter (a Z) received a double-dose of blue eyes (with huge eyelashes to match) that are frankly, stunning. Millennials and Zs took the Boomer notion of “look at what I did” and amped it up, loudly but simply, to just “look at me!” The eyes of her generation too often stare into that small camera lens fixed on the back of a smartphone that represent the window to a future determined by algorithms. Which is, sadly and most certainly, unsustainable. (See: social media.) But in her eyes, I also see question marks within the reflected candescent halo ring of the Zoom lighting; curiosity mixed with a generation-skipping resolve that Lunetta Belle would easily recognize. Millennials and Zs may feel a sense of whiplash under today’s crisis-level challenges, but their gaze is not fixed, nor are their minds sclerotic. They understand the dynamics of fluidity and, with a nimble sense of determination, believe they can send the world turning in a better direction. In the face of current events, we need them to come into their own, and fast. The rest of us need to get out of their way.

Today, abundance is backsliding to a return to scarcity. Capital markets view the world as much less valuable—trillions less—than it was just four months ago. Bad luck has become an expectation rather than the occasional nuisance. Risk has a new locus that is never far away from imposing its consequences. Truth is under attack in every corner of the world. We must acknowledge the reality of power politics: it has launched a scourge of inhumanity that is submerging the world in a bile of hate. From abusing flight attendants to dropping bombs on children’s hospitals, we must stand together to fight inhumanity rising from dissonance, disequilibria, and chaos that empowers tyrants and zealots. We must summon what energy we have left to support the next generations of leaders—the Millennials and Zs—to save their own futures.

We will likely have to give up the big highs to avoid the depths of existential lows. We must settle for calm as the new joy. Above all else, we have to get back to the “this is us” disposition of older generations. Or, we can don red MAGA caps and learn to goose-step march in May Day parades on the Washington Mall. We do have a choice. For now.

By |2022-05-22T17:11:06+00:00May 10th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

America’s Secret Sauce: Self-determination

The last five years have produced what forbearing historians, muttering their observations from the comfort of overstuffed club chairs, might call a generational setback, even while it may feel more like a catastrophic collapse in the moment. Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of violent authoritarianism, the health and the general welfare of our civilization have suffered tremendous blows. Recovery will be slow and arduous. Globalization, which had been underway for thirty years, has come to an abrupt halt. Its principal benefits—economic growth and peaceful coexistence—were interrupted by the pandemic, then dismembered by Putin’s war. Meanwhile, addressing climate change, which can only be mitigated by a combination of cooperation, sacrifice, and extraordinary investment in energy innovation and infrastructure, now appears headed for a fully realized nightmare. Once differential population and economic growth rates collide with mandatory climate migration affecting not millions, but hundreds of millions of people, an apocalyptic ending to civilization is highly plausible. This is all enough to make even the strongest among us throw up our hands and walk off the nearest cliff.

But we haven’t and we won’t.

The thing about periods of both dramatic growth and sudden decline is they end in whiplash. We surge, we collapse, we purge, and we rise again. In one sentence, this is the pulse of humanity that has repeated for thousands of years. The purge, which includes casting aside old ways for new ones and is essential to renewal, is underway. History suggests that the invincibility of the human spirit will shine through the darkness to light a new path. The vast majority of us have suffered loss. The range of loss is wide, from lives to opportunities forgone. What we are now beginning to experience, however, is the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. The sun still rises and sets, and between these events we forge new paths to pursue our dreams, from the grandiose to the sublime to those as simple as sweet peace. As bleak as our prospects appear today, we are learning and purging to reinvent our future. We have been awakened and humbled by our losses. We are beginning to appreciate what we had taken for granted and we are now deploying the knowledge we gained during the whiplash of collapse to prevent future tragedies.

New knowledge gained during the pandemic is being applied to all manner of public health issues that will not only serve us well when the next super-virus unloads its wrath upon the world, but will also mitigate a number of endemic diseases that have ravaged humankind for decades, even centuries. In addition, authoritarianism, whose first victim is human liberty, has peaked. In a foolish fit of overreach (which always signals the end of authoritarian regimes), Putin is now showing the world, and especially his own people and other wannabe fascists, what happens when you attempt to crush human liberties. Will he gain land in the end? Yes. But the cost of the acquisition far outweighs the benefits of his gain. The bleak days of Stalin are coming back. Putin the Great is a fading fantasy. In time, the Russian people will suffer as much or more as the people of Ukraine and Putin will succumb to the darkness of his delusions. In Xi’s case, China is also now experiencing what happens when you crush human liberties in his authoritarian attempt to assert his zero-Covid policy. Ineffective and insufficient vaccinations are no match for Mother Nature. She can humble even the largest iron fist. Lockdowns have also prevented native immunity from taking hold. Burying your head in the sand is a highly ineffective strategy for dealing with crises. Today, the people of China are suffering the dark side of authoritarianism after years of believing they had cracked the code of blending open markets with closed politics.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times,

In short, both Moscow and Beijing find themselves suddenly contending with much more powerful and relentless forces and systems than they ever anticipated. And the battles are exposing—to the whole world and to their own people—the weaknesses of their own systems. So much so that the world now has to worry about instability in both countries.

Historically in America, we have watched these regimes come and go while standing proudly on our own commitment to democracy and human rights. But this time is different. We have work to do, too. We have allowed quasi-authoritarianism to poison our own government and society. The executive branch under Trump did everything in its power to destroy democratic norms and crush human liberty, and the legal branch—principally the Supreme Court—is set up to continue pursuing this theme of limited rights and concentration of power. Standing in their way will be, as in Russia and China, the will of the people.

The good news is while we haven’t suffered the same losses coming to the people of Russia and China, I hope we have been sufficiently aroused by our own loss of liberty to rein in those who masquerade as patriots while offending the fundamental spirit of Americans who believe their future should be—now and forever—in their own hands. At its most basic level, our founders went to great lengths to assure skeptical colonists—most of whom arrived here to escape tyranny in their homelands—that its government would limit the assertion of power at both the federal and state level. Alexis de Tocqueville scratched his head over what he called “self-interest rightly understood,” concluding that American’s enlightened self-determination served both the individual and government. Chiseled into the chest of the American soul is the inalienable right to be who we want to be—on our own terms. Self-determination is the basis of our founding documents and it underpins our conception of the American Dream. It is the reason we will, eventually, restore our democratic principles.

In a post-pandemic and post-Trump world, I expect the right to self-determination will be aggressively asserted; perhaps even more so than at the founding. It is kryptonite to authoritarianism and it is in full bloom in the United States today. We saw it manifested in the battles over mask and vaccine mandates, and we have also seen it in movements to protect women’s rights, gender and sexual preference rights, and to defeat racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. Self-determination is the common thread to movements on both the left and the right; it permeates the entire American political spectrum. Those seeking common ground take note: self-determination is America’s binding epoxy of unity. It is the essence of libertarianism, which has driven Americans for nearly two-hundred fifty years. Of course, its assertion is often quickly compromised by hypocrisy when rights are asserted in an attempt to control others—to rob them of their own self-determination—but, on the whole, it prevails. Moreover, it is essential to the American experiment. My on-going beef with Republicans is their twisted desire to tell others what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Meanwhile, I often cringe when Democrats attempt to assert similar controls over people’s wealth and property. Both parties need an occasional smack upside the head. What we must realize today is that our liberties are the source of our attraction and power. And, they are the principal pathway to move from purge to renewal—to rising again.

So, what does this mean for each of us, as individuals?

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated four freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. I grew up in an era when the freedom froms were largely mitigated, which left my generation to concentrate on the freedom ofs. We were the first generation to extend freedom ofs beyond speech and worship. We enjoyed the freedom of the American Dream: to become whatever we wanted to be. The results were nothing short of astonishing: the greatest expansion of human welfare in the history of humankind. Our needs were met; we had the luxury of pursuing our wants. What we lost sight of was the danger of escalating wants which, in the last few years, has cost us many of our freedoms. Our success compromised our liberty.

Eastern traditions of spirituality explain this conundrum best. The ultimate key to liberation (and power) is the suppression—not the escalation—of our wants. Every time we look at the world before us and decide we want something that isn’t there, we render ourselves vulnerable to manipulation and suffering. In addition, we foster complex regimes that increase risk when simple regimes are often more than sufficient to assure our well-being. Among other things, escalating wants and the economic growth necessary to realize them produced enormous increases in the consumption of fossil fuels, which is the fundamental cause of climate change. Instead of moving seamlessly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from safety and security to actualization and, ultimately, transcendence, we got stuck on a treadmill of chasing extravagant lifestyles under the false hope of finding peace and tranquility. Instead, we left ourselves highly vulnerable to those intent on manipulating us for their own benefit; to trading our liberties for the empty promises of people like Trump, Putin, and Xi. Escalating wants has left us physically, emotionally, and mentally ill. Literally, ill.

Rising again requires we learn, purge, and return to regard America’s secret sauce: self-determination, as both a humble and essential human right. Further, we must respect each of our particular interpretations of what that means on our own terms. Finally, we must realize that escalating wants is killing both our individual prospects for tranquility and the very future of humanity. Enough must indeed be, enough. The maxim, “Less is more” must, once again, become fashionable. As Thomas Paine suggested at the time of our declaration of independence, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to both grasp the gravity of our current circumstances and to summon the will to make what difference we can to, individually and collectively, rise again. Feel free to look over the edge of the cliff, but only to realize why you should step back and try, try, again.

By |2022-05-10T19:44:06+00:00April 29th, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

The Dynamic Duo: Empathy and Dignity

Years ago, when I worked in the corporate world, the most valued executives were the turnaround artists. Those who could see things as they were, and then as they should be, without being blinded by entrenched legacy thinking. This skill-set enabled them to strip out the anchors—both big and small—that were causing the enterprise to drift, or worse, sink. Clarity, both in terms of vision and focus—coupled with simplicity—were often all that was needed to set a new path to victory. The most rewarding thing for me, when I filled the turnaround role, was not the subsequent organizational victories or even my own compensation. It was watching those team members who had been there, both before and after the reset, have their outlook on life transformed as well. To see them regain their sense of dignity. It was as close as I have come to witnessing people being born again. Helping people believe in themselves is the highest calling of any leader.

I have been around since the Soviets launched Sputnik which, among other things, popped America’s balloon of esteem and sanguinity that had prevailed since World War II. It made Americans doubt themselves and their leadership. The Soviet message: “We are coming for you. Yes, we helped you beat the Nazis, but we, not you (America), will be the world’s next superpower.” That history has now been written. The doubts instilled by Sputnik were met by Americans with resolve and ingenuity. We won. The United States responded not just with a superior ideology founded in capitalism and democracy, but with a sense of fortitude based in responsible individualism, perfectibility (making things better than the way they were found), and the guiding light of exemplar exceptionalism (setting the example for others to follow). These values resided in our collective commitment to humanism; in the dynamic duo of empathy and dignity.

To be clear, as many scholars and pundits and detractors have argued throughout the period of America’s ascension to the role of lone superpower, we didn’t come close to getting everything right, and many people were left out of the fruits of success. Women and people of color shared much less of the spotlight or bounty. However, on the whole, a rising tide did lift all boats. Until, of course, intoxicated by success early in the twenty-first century, responsible individualism morphed into narcissism; perfectibility was sacrificed for an adolescent sense of entitlement; and, exemplar exceptionalism gave way to hubris. The turnaround artist in me, tasked with describing what had happened in a particular company to its board of directors, would ascribe these shifts to tactical drift; an admittedly genial assessment. A more accurate characterization might be that like drunken sailors we fell into the bay of stupidity. The core strategic cause of America’s current decline resides deep inside our moral conscience. We have abdicated our commitment to empathy and dignity, which are (surprisingly) relative newcomers to the lexicon of humanity.

The word empathy has only been with us in the English language since 1903. It came to us from the German word, Einfühlung, which means “in feeling with.” Initially, it meant projecting one’s own sense of aesthetics into another object—especially in contemplating art. It wasn’t until psychologists co-opted it to mean our capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of other human beings in the 1930s that empathy came into its current meaning. That doesn’t mean we did not have, or practice, empathy prior to 1903, we just didn’t know what to call it. However, when you don’t know what to call something it is very difficult to understand it, let alone teach it, or develop it within a society. Until the early twentieth century, the notion of empathy was like an orphan: no one knew its name and few would take responsibility for it. When people were “in feeling with” something or somebody it was often by accident.

Dignity is also a relatively new word, at least in how we apply it today. In “A History of Human Dignity” (https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/theforum/a-history-of-human-dignity/), Remy Debes illustrates how dignity, which today means the “inherent or unearned worth that all humans share equally” meant something quite different until after World War II. Until then, dignity was earned as a matter of merit; it was bestowed to describe social status “of a kind associated with nobility, power, gentlemanly comportment, or preferment in the church.” As in “dignified” or “dignitary.” It is understandable, then, why dignity does not appear anywhere in our Declaration of Independence, nor in the Constitution. Perhaps if we had embraced its current meaning at the founding, the phrase “all men are created equal” might have been applied across gender, race, and religion. But, no. Its first meaningful application in establishing itself in the moral conscience of America did not come until 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.

The relative youth of these terms does not, however, diminish their power as essential considerations in the manner which we conduct our lives or, for that matter, in how our country contemplates its role in the world. Standards of behavior and the words that describe them do evolve. Empathy and dignity are fundamental values we must re-embrace if we are going to heal the division in our own country and wage a moral vision that is, once again, how we will win against authoritarianism that is on the march in more of the world every day, and in the Trumplican Party here in the United States. The capacity to walk in another person’s shoes and grant them the same respect we expect for ourselves is today’s keystone in the proverbial arch of humanity. Without it, there is no humanity. When the keystone falls out, other stones/values crumble into a pile of rubble. Which, today, is sadly and regrettably the honest state of affairs at home and abroad.

The good news is that during the twentieth century in America we exercised empathy and assured the dignity of others when we were forced to compete with those who wished to destroy the sanctity of civil society for their own nefarious aims, placing humanity itself in great peril. To a large degree, that is what World War II and the Cold War that followed were all about. Today, we must understand that Trump was the warning shot across our bow of morality, and Putin is the missile of devastation attempting to take our world back to the Hobbesian days where morals do not exist and the currency of life is coercive power. When you observe those who are angry about their lot in life, like the Trump supporter who fears they are losing their social/economic/political position in America, or the young black man being targeted by cops, or women who see their reproductive rights being stripped away, they have this in common: they believe that their dignity—their fundamental sense of self-worth—is under assault.

Although the state of humanity was indeed consistent with Thomas Hobbes brutish view of man for centuries, I would like to believe we have it in ourselves to do better. We can debate whether morality is innate or learned, but this much is clear: the moral foundations of empathy and dignity, as historically expressed in America as a commitment to responsible individualism, perfectibility, and exemplar exceptionalism, must be restored if we are to remain a free and prosperous people. In the end, whether you are a turnaround artist or the leader of the free world, transforming people’s lives is about winning in a manner consistent with cultural dispositions and with due care for people’s sense of dignity. Peaceful communities will only be sustained when people are seen, heard, appreciated, and respected on their own terms. The urgency of this calling—by leaders of all stripes and responsibilities—must not be ignored.

By |2022-04-29T14:20:34+00:00April 12th, 2022|Donald Trump, General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Zen of the Irish

Ireland has produced some of the greatest poets, novelists, songwriters and musicians in the history of the world. It is a culture guided by simple phrases and smiling limericks. A lyric here and there explains everything from the great mysteries of the universe to what to expect in the afternoon; more often than not a “soft rain.” Not “drizzle” as it was known where I grew up near Seattle that suggests a relentless canopy of depression, rather a more elegant and humane rendering that fosters a sense of well-being enveloped by a nurturing lifeforce. Therefore: “soft rain.” The Irish know how to keep a wall between joy and suffering. Suffering is always lurking, why give it a perch upon which to prosper? Perspective is everything.

The Irish are known for their perseverance founded in perspective. Whether at the hands of British oppressors, the despair of a relentless famine, or the sadistic perversions of wayward nuns and priests, the Irish have endured. “Irish luck” may be the greatest oxymoron in the world, giving rise to the old saying, “if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” The contemplation of luck in Ireland is actually their whimsical way of mocking reality. Alas, only tourists kiss the Blarney Stone and wish on shamrocks. The Irish are often seen by Americans as though they expect to be punished—that they deserve to suffer. When I was a student at University College Cork in Ireland, I misunderstood their sense of fate as weakness, which I now understand as extraordinary strength and timeless wisdom.

In part, the Irish come to accept their fate as a product of their Catholic indoctrinations. After all, sinners (meaning everyone) deserve their suffering and punishment. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism doesn’t allow the prospect of direct relations with a merciful God. Martin Luther’s sixteenth century concept of disintermediation—reducing the role of the church between man and God—which runs as a thread through his ninety-five theses (and later came to mark the period of Protestant Reformation), were never adopted by the papal collectors of simony who preserved their right to forgive indulgences (for a price) as a way to fill church coffers. Money (then as now) remained a prerequisite to mercy. The pope, and through him, the parish priests, are God’s only earthly authority in the Catholic version of Christianity. Irish Catholics accept the word of God from the robed ones in funny hats; any attempt at theological interpretation by parishioners is considered a fool’s errand. However, accepting sacrifice and anguish is more than a cultural condition promoted from the pulpit on Sundays. It also gave rise to the Irish secret weapon in forging a meaningful life: rethinking the relationship between life and reality.

Rather than fight with reality as most Americans do, the Irish aim is to simply manage their relationship—through the power of reflection—with a reality they see as mostly immutable. We Americans are taught to regard perseverance as something we are forced to do if we neglect the imperative to bend reality in our favor. We believe in our ability to be masters of our destiny (the facts be damned). Unlike Christians in America who pray to change circumstances and outcomes, the Irish pray as a matter of resolve to deal with things as they are. Americans grieve about what isn’t so, while the Irish deal with what is so. Whereas Americans regard acceptance of circumstance as a character flaw, the Irish know it is a sign of strength as resilience. The Irish take the world before them and accommodate it in a manner that minimizes suffering while preserving their dignity. That is how drizzle becomes a soft rain, hunger fortifies the soul, and humility (and confession) fill and smooth the cracks of transgression. It is their relationship with reality that is important, not reality itself. That is their secret weapon.

The key that opens the door to this relationship management skill—a cultural asset of the Irish—is reflection. While perspective is the foundation of perseverance, it is only possible through reflection. The basis of reflection is time and thoughtfulness, also known as deliberation. It not only allows better decision making, it fosters a creative process to support their wordcraft and music. Considering all aspects of every challenge from every angle and in consideration of both costs and (often hidden) benefits, the Irish create the opportunity for making lemonade when life hands them lemons, rather than the American proclivity for making mountains out of mole hills. Some might argue they have no choice while our American life is advantaged by greater leeway to satisfy our needs and avoid unwelcome consequences. Fair enough. Americans do have many advantages over the Irish (and most of the rest of the world). But how often do we Americans successfully bend reality to meet our desires, when we (and those around us) might have been better off simply adjusting our relationship with that same reality? Incessantly pounding square pegs into round holes has its own subtle, yet grinding, consequences.

Desire is, as both Buddha and Christ held, a sure pathway to suffering. Desire inherently demands change from the actual to the preferred. Americans often waste desire on superficial materialism that comes with lots and lots of packaging to satisfy mostly transient wants, while the Irish save desire for more moderate elements of life: a pint of stout, freshly baked soda bread, a warm heart, and a tune to weave them all together. Behind that Irish preternatural calm—that expressionless resolve—lies not the weakness of resignation; rather, the enduring resilience of timeless wisdom. As the Serenity Prayer intones, wisdom lies in knowing the difference between what can and cannot be changed. Ignoring such wisdom nearly assures suffering.

The key to happiness and fulfillment in the Irish life is sitting on the top of the wall between joy and suffering without falling to either side. This is the balance, or harmony, of equanimity—the calm state in the middle of the maelstrom that is the reality of life. They take life as it comes without chasing elements they do not control. They call it the Serenity Prayer for a reason. Can you imagine how much time this frees up for them? Without trying to twist and bend reality to their will, they have time to write, to laugh, to sing, and to care for all those children the church requires to keep its theological (and economic) Ponzi scheme alive.

It is argued that the path to transcendence is getting rid of the stuff—from material wants to our emotional and psychological hang-ups—that block one’s liberation to realize an open and fulfilling life. Spiritually constipated Americans take note: sit down with your eyes wide open, shut your mouth, let your ears get some playing time, breathe deeply through your nose, and let life come to you on its own terms. Foster a healthier relationship with reality. And, when you are ready, sip a Guinness. Do not chug it, sip it. It is not a Big Gulp, it is nourishment. It enables reflection and soothes the soul. After a couple, you may even sing like an Irishman. Or, write a piece titled “The Luck Zen of the Irish.”

Cheers.

By |2022-04-12T15:35:32+00:00April 5th, 2022|General|0 Comments

Unbelievable! WTF?! Insane!

How many times in the last few years have you asked, “Can it get any crazier than this?” It has become the refrain of the times.

The study of how we know what we know—epistemology—has always fascinated me. In these crazy days, epistemologists must be scratching their heads with a pick axe trying to alleviate the itch of bewilderment. In my doctoral research, I journeyed through the world of epistemology to examine the influence of the religious beliefs of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on foreign policy that resulted in my monograph, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy. I was faced with reckoning the squishy world of faith-based beliefs on presidential decision making. The model I developed to assess these impacts is called cognetic profiling. It considers and weighs what we know as a matter of empiricism and experience with what we believe as a matter of faith gained through socialization and indoctrination on our decision making. It allows us to explain, and (with due humility) predict, the behaviors of world leaders. (Putin’s recent decisions were entirely predictable based on his cognetic profile.)

One of the greatest ironies of today is that with all the amazing advances in information technology we have seen in the last two-plus decades, our capacity to make better more rational decisions appears to have plummeted. Rational models in epistemology have, no doubt, been found wholly deficient in explaining why on earth we are making such bizarre decisions. What is missing in my model of cognetic profiling is a research pathway that includes stupidity, which seems to be ascendant in America today. When faced with incontrovertible facts, many Americans decided to embrace what Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, infamously titled, “alternative facts”; heretofore known as falsehoods, or lies. Even with our lives on the line during the pandemic, nearly half of Americans chose to ignore empiricism forcing policymakers to offer a combination of incentives and disincentives to coax us to get the jab. Our fantasy world, founded in magical thinking, has apparently become more precious to us than reality.

The twentieth century in America was an era of what I have called “the scientification of everything.” As we applied scientific method to all aspects of our lives, we attempted to assert the rational will of humans in all of our decision making. Mastery of anything and everything was simply considered a matter of data processing. If it could be quantified and fit in an equation, it was considered relevant. There was little room left, in any of our decision models, for narrative, impulse, or faith-based beliefs. And, there was no room for “alternative facts.” In this new century, we have decided to rebel against reality—against facts—and elevate things like meme-based whims over empiricism. The “scientification of everything” certainly had its faults, but today we live in a world that would make Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter blush with envy. Crazy? Yes, it is.

So, why is this happening and what can we do about it?

The first thing I will point to, in a constellation of culprits, is that we are overwhelmed with information sources that arrive at the speed of a click or, more recently, are pushed in our face whether we like it or not, as in “banner notifications.” The promise of information technology has morphed into the nightmare of disinformation technology. We are faced with what the psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has identified as the “paradox of choice.” Like the three-hundred or so choices of cereal in the grocery aisle, we would much prefer ten. Abundance breeds anxiety, which has dramatically increased our error rate when making decisions.

The second culprit is the media—both traditional and online/social. In the twentieth century, media was, for the most part, a reliable source of information. The processes and ethics that journalists subscribed to assured the reader/listener/viewer that what they were consuming was likely true. Deceit bore consequences; today it bears benefits. The problem that arose is that as new sources proliferated—as quantity increased—reliability/quality decreased. Instead of a moderate flow of reliable information that was easy to consider and digest, we got a firehose level of (largely) bullshit that hit us in the face 24/7, producing a disorientation that would make Kanye West appear sane. In the same manner as Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address of the “military industrial complex,” perhaps Obama should have warned us of the disinformation complex. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, codified the strategy of our 45th president when he proclaimed, “The real enemy is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” The result? Regardless of how many times we scrub and wash, the stain fades but the stench remains as the flow of crap continues at firehose rates.

In response to being overwhelmed by a flow of disinformation, our coping response has been to seek simplification through association with groups, organizations, and political tribes, which naturally provide us with a set of filters in the form of prescriptions and proscriptions—what to believe and think or not to believe and think. In the history of humankind this function was the exclusive domain of religion. Today, every group of any orientation or function seeks to affect our decisions. In other words, we have abdicated both the consideration of information and its use in decision making to those we wish (for whatever reason) to associate with. Every group or organization has its own norms and rules that we are, either implicitly or explicitly, required to follow. Call it the hidden cost of membership. This is the most insidious of all the factors in the constellation of culprits that have degraded our decision making. It is through our choices of associations that we have become lazy and, frankly, stupid. In effect, we have taken a vast complex world made possible from our success and allowed its walls, ceiling, and floor to collapse in on us in order to affect simplicity.

Among other things, this explains the proliferation and acceptance of conspiracy theories in spite of empirical evidence that easily disproves many conspiracist’s claims. At the heart of conspiracies is simplicity, which is why they have become so popular. It is easier to accept a claim from a Facebook group that Ivermectin paste—something used to de-worm horses—might prevent or cure Covid-19, rather than wade through epidemiologist’s reports and seek the advice of medical professionals, let alone endure the public health gauntlet to be vaccinated. And, Ivermectin now comes in mint flavor! (Kidding. I think.) It may seem ironic that opposites—the far right and the far left—were those most resistant to Covid vaccines, but they are also those who are the most ardent subscribers to group-think. Their identities—their personal brand—are closely tied to their associations. They claim to be independent free-thinkers since they live at the margins of the socio-political spectrum, and yet, in reality, they are some of the most zealous close-minded people among us.

As the risk essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan and Antifragile) once told me, as the world grows more complex, events compound such that outliers (black swans) become more prevalent. For those of you who are statistics junkies, the effect of this is to flatten the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution; more like a cymbal than a bell. This condition implies higher risk and is naturally disorienting. It requires much greater and more sophisticated capacities for decision making. Reliability of information is paramount. Unfortunately, the disinformation complex has come around to bite us in the ass.

The solution resides in adopting three new practices: slow down, discard and disassociate, and recommit ourselves to a sense of personal responsibility to be accountable for our own unique and discrete decisions. Just because technology moves information faster does not mean we need to make decisions faster. Deliberation is a choice. Just because everyone else belongs to a group and accepts edicts without inquiry, does not mean you have to. Be unique; be independent. Finally, don’t let others tell you what to think or do. The consequences are your own, the decision should be too. Our destiny—individually and collectively—depends on our willingness and capacity to regain control of our lives. No more delegating or abdicating. The biggest culprit in the constellation of the disinformation complex is us.

It is your mind, use it (again). Zombies may be entertaining in movies, but it is no way to live.

By |2022-04-05T14:47:11+00:00March 29th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Evil Sits Alone and Dies in the Darkness of Delusion

The provenance of wisdom is a gathered life. Yes, education and experience are elements of wisdom, but time must pass for them to be properly gathered in a manner that conveys truth and understanding which manifest power. The poet, David Whyte, reckons that “a summation of previous intuitions” might be the binding agent of wisdom—of a gathered life. Out of these connections between seemingly disconnected experiences and observations come patterns that provide the structure of visions about the world that inevitably rhyme with another time.

One of wisdom’s ironies, of course, is that the more wisdom we have the less we share it. Perhaps because those of us with enough gathered life, which is to say, old, know that youth must, as we certainly did, live their own life that will then be gathered. Perhaps it is also true that the old and wise keep to themselves once they have received the inevitable eye-roll dismissal from those most in need of wisdom. In many cultures, wisdom from gathered lives is highly regarded—even sought with reverence. Unfortunately, ours is not one of those cultures. Also, as we age—as our gathered life comes into fruition—we become less fearful even while we are less strong (at least physically). Something in our past says, “Fear not, we have seen this movie before.”

Putin is not the first, nor will he be the last, agent of evil. Once we have lived long enough, we know, even as we watch evil take the lives of so many innocents today, that it will be overcome by truth, love, and justice. Evil is simply unsustainable. As I watch Putin sit alone at the end of his long hideous table, dispensing his many admonitions and instructions to those he subjugates with fear, I wonder if anyone there yearn for truth that might set them free. Embracing deceit as a modality is uncomfortable for a reason: it is incompatible with inner peace. Truth is the backbone of solace. If you need a more immediate example, look at Trump. His life is so completely denominated in deceit that he has likely never even experienced a sense of inner peace. Rather, he is consumed by inner rage. The only time he smiles are photo-ops when he is liberating a donor of the cash in their pocket.

At his essence, Putin is a very scared little man. It appears that no one can stop him, but my wisdom—my gathered life —knows he will be stopped by the beauty and durability of truth, which will cascade down upon him regardless of where he hides, or what other despot(s) might come forward to support him. It is no coincidence that Hitler, Mussolini, and eventually Stalin, were also very much alone as justice found them. In the name of power, he kills. But, also in the name of power—mitigated by love—he shall face justice. This was the American theologian, Paul Tillich’s, greatest contribution to the contemplation of power: that love is what turns power into justice. We must, therefore, have faith in our own collective moral moorings. In the midst of horror, we must do what we can to accelerate the arrival of justice. And yet, regardless of these efforts, I am quite certain that power, mitigated by love, will be visited upon Mr. Putin in time, manifested as justice. To put it more simply, truth has no expiration date and love for the innocents lost will prevail over the evil of Mr. Putin. It is just a matter of time.

In the meantime, we must recommit ourselves, as Americans, to the prospect of a society built on truth where we can, in spite of the many deceits cast our way, commit to the shared realities that are critical to advance the causes to which we aspire. Putin has provided an abject lesson on why this is so important. Russia is what happens when fear and deceit conspire to form delusions, which are the sustenance of evil. In America, we have been flirting with turning our backs on truth for some time now; it was arguably the foundation of the last administration. W. B. Yeats’ “rough beast” did indeed arrive in Moscow; Washington D.C. let one visit, which must never happen again. Clear eyes and full hearts are required to correct our course. It may be too late for Russia, but it is not for us.

As I wrote in “Of Culture, Civilization, and Chaos” (February 27, 2022), the promise of a peaceful world enabled by global economic interdependencies was a bet that is now “collapsing before our eyes.” We are, once again, where we were thirty years ago, devolving into two worlds on one planet. To cite another David Whyte observation, one world is conversational while the other is not. One world speaks its mind while the other is gagged by coercive fear. The difference this time is that we know how it ends. In my youth, we thought we should win, but weren’t sure until the competing model—the Soviet Union—collapsed. The conversational world, marked by liberal democracies will, no doubt, (as another rhyme from another time) prevail again.

Putin’s wager is to bend the reality of history to his grand delusion of a new Russian empire. The problem for him, as it is for any fascist who is intoxicated by the idea of a retrotopia, like “Make America Great Again,” is that it is impossible to reverse the rotation of the earth, let alone turn back the hands of time. Progress marches forward in fits and starts—two steps forward and one back—but forward always wins. George Kennan’s strategy of containment that was used to isolate the ambitions of the Soviets after World War II is, once again, being deployed by the West. The difference this time is that Russians have tasted (however diluted) open markets and free speech. Educated Russians of means are fleeing to join the West as Putin’s bombs crush hospitals in Ukraine. Russia’s brain-drain is underway. The other substantial difference is that the Russian economy, unlike the late 1940s, is completely entangled with the West. Today, they do not have the means to run an isolated economy, and their only hope—China—will exploit that reality at every ask Putin sends Xi’s way. Putin’s weapons—conventional, cyber, chemical, and nuclear—will become the bars of his imprisonment and, eventually, assure his dark lonely death.

The iron curtain will rise again and will probably include portions of today’s Ukraine. But walls do not foster innovation or progress; they strangle those on the wrong side of history. It is people, not walls, that matter. (America, take note.) And, walls will be scaled by those with the will to find their way out, and eventually fall by the invisible but all-powerful hand of truth.

America’s wake-up call resides in the stone-eyed face of Putin’s glare. Let’s not ignore the wisdom in that.

By |2022-03-29T16:04:50+00:00March 21st, 2022|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments
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